Messi stars as Argentina win 2 v 1 Croatia
Although most football fans loathe the international break, all those at Upton Park would disagree after watching a star studded Argentina side beat a young and exciting Croatia team. Though Croatia being geographically closer to the England than Argentina, it was La Albiceleste who boasted more Premier League players, with five in their starting line-up- Pablo Zabaleta, Santiago Verigini, Federcio Fazio, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero. But it was Lionel Messi who stole the show with a goal and an assist, against a Croatian team with an average age of 23; including an impressive display from 18 year old centre back Tin Jedvaj, who is now a first team starter at Bayer Leverkusen, on loan from Roma.
Though the likes of Dejan Lovren, Ivan Rakitić, Luka Modrić and Mario Manžukić were rested, it was Croatia who made the brighter start to game, as Argentina struggled to deal with their clever midfield movement, with 20 year old, Inter Milan starlet, Mateo Kovačić pulling the early strings. It was he who provided the assist after a tremendous move led to Anas Sharbrini excellently slotting the ball into the bottom corner on the 11th minute, giving them a deserved 1-0 lead. Argentina slowly grew into the first half, with Aguero having a couple of shots on goal, both being off target. Though both teams struggled to create clear-cut chances, it was Messi who dazzled, gliding past defenders, often attracting up to five Croatian players, leaving space on the pitch elsewhere, which Argentina could not capitalise on. He also had a free kick saved by Lovre Kalinic, and hit the side netting with a right footed shot from a tight angle.
Argentina dominated the second half, and it took them 3 minutes to equalise, as Messi passed to right footed left back, Christian Ansaldi, who rifled in a shot into the top corner via a deflection off Aguero. The pressure grew too strong as a wonderful through ball from Messi led to Aguero poking the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper, who then tripped him. Messi sent the keeper the wrong way with the resulting penalty, making it 45 goals in 96 international matches. It was against Croatia that Messi scored his first international goal, in a friendly in Basel in 2006. That now leaves him eleven goals behind Argentina’s all-time top scorer, Gabriel Batistuta, though the former Fiorentina and Roma striker has a better goals per game ratio, with his 56 goals coming in just 78 appearances.
The loudest cheer of the night came after the hour mark, as former West Ham hero Carlos Tevez entered the pitch, taking the place of Aguero. This was his first appearance for his country in over 3 years, with former Barcelona manager Gerard Martino being impressed with his displays at Juventus this season. Tevez had the best chance of the game after he was put through by Di Maria, but dragged his shot just wide of the post. A disappointing performance from Di Maria, who created little and was poor in possession, was replaced on the 77th minute by a Eric Lamela, who was jeered each time he touched the ball, due to his alliance with West Ham’s rivals, Tottenham. A few minutes later, Messi struck the post with a right footed shot inside the area, after a mazy run from Roberto Pereyra.
Though Croatia struggled after the break, a second half performance by 18 year old Alen Halilović showed onlookers why he is considered as one of the best young talents in world football. Starting his career at Dinamo Zagreb, the attacker moved this summer and currently plays for Barcelona B. He also became Croatia’s youngest ever player at aged 16 when he came on as a substitute in a friendly against Portugal. Argentina controlled the second half with 64 % possession, completing 708 passes during the 90 minutes, compared to Croatia’s 380. Many of these passes were made by Javier Masherano who often dropped deep to create a back three, while their full backs pushed out wide.
Argentina were made to work hard for their 2-1 victory, with an inexperienced Croatia team giving a good account of themselves. The diminutive Halilović will no doubt be compared to Messi, with both players playing for the same club, being the same height and both being left footed. The future seems bright for the youngster and his fellow team mates, but Messi once again showed why he will go down as one the best players of not only his own generation, but of all time.